(Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens) Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

Following Gov. John Bel Edwards’ announcement that the state’s stay at home order will remain effective through at least May 15, the First and Second City Courts of New Orleans on Tuesday didn’t have an answer yet for when they will reopen their doors and start processing eviction proceedings. And they wouldn’t answer questions about how they’re preparing to stay in line with new federal rules shielding many renters from evictions until August.

“We’re waiting on the Louisiana State Supreme Court,” said Walt Pierce, a spokesman for Orleans Parish Civil District Court and the two city courts. Louisiana State Supreme Court officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Under an order issued early this month, the eviction courts are currently scheduled to open on Monday. The courts originally planned to reopen on April 24, but that was pushed back after a new court order came down from the state Supreme Court saying that courts should only conduct emergency matters “until at least May 4.”

The state Supreme Court’s guidance came several days after Edwards issued his first extension of the stay at home order, moving the expiration date from April 13 to April 30. 

When the City Courts eventually reopen, they will still be prohibited from ordering evictions from certain properties under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. The court wouldn’t answer questions on how it plans to avoid evicting renters who are protected by the federal law. 

When the courts reopen and how they will enforce those restrictions will have major implications for New Orleans renters who are behind on rent or expect to fall behind this summer due to the coronavirus crisis. 

The CARES Act put a moratorium on evictions at properties that have a federally-backed mortgage, or have participated in a number of other federal programs including Low Income Housing Tax Credits and the Section 8 housing voucher program. 

Owners of those properties can’t post an eviction notice until July 25, according to the law. But the CARES Act also requires landlords to give thirty days notice to vacate before filing for an eviction on those properties. That means that evictions for CARES Act-covered properties are effectively prohibited until August 24, according to a letter from a broad coalition of 36 local groups who want the City Courts to extend the local moratorium to at least August 24. 

It’s not easy to track participation in all of those various federal programs, says Hannah Adams, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. She told The Lens that for buildings with less than five units, a renter would need the owner’s social security number to find out if they had a federally-backed mortgage.

“It’s really going to fall on the court to make sure landlords are actually legally able to evict,” Adams said. “I’m actually absolutely terrified about what this is going to look like. I think we’re looking at mass illegal displacement unless some pretty strict structures are put in place to ensure that landlords covered under the CARES Act are screened out.”

Pierce told The Lens that the judges had “no comment” on how they planned to stay in line with the federal law. Adams said that the task will be new and unfamiliar for the courts.

“It’s going to be a huge administrative and logistical burden on the courts for them,” she said. “That information simply isn’t available to tenants. … So tenants literally don’t have the tools to defend themselves. And the vast majority of tenants will not be in court with an attorney.”

The First and Second City Courts began restricting operations in response to the coronavirus outbreak in New Orleans starting on March 13. Citing guidance from the U.S. Center for Disease Control on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the courts suspended all residential evictions. A subsequent court order extended the court closures to May 4.

That date put the courts’ reopening roughly in line with the end of Governor John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order. But Edwards’ latest order and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s stay-at-home order do not expire until mid-May. Cantrell issued her latest order earlier this month. 

In a more recent court order, the Louisiana State Supreme Court maintained the “at least May 4” guidance for non-emergency court matters, but prohibited all criminal and civil jury trials until June 30.

Advocates want all evictions suspended until August

The coalition wants to extend the citywide eviction moratorium to August 24 and wants it to cover all properties, which the letter says would eliminate confusion as to which properties are covered by the federal law and which aren’t. But for now, the groups are hoping the moratorium will be extended to at least May 16 to follow the governor’s order.

Breonne Dedecker, program manager for Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, told The Lens that it would give the city more time to ensure that the courts are not processing evictions in violation of federal law.

“Pressing pause for a little bit longer not only protects people’s health by protecting their housing security, but it gives the City, the State and the Federal governments more time to align resources and policies to prevent this wave of evictions which is otherwise certainly coming on May 1,” she said.

Adams said that even a short delay would help with clients that are having trouble accessing federal stimulus payments or unemployment benefits

“People still aren’t receiving the benefits they’re expecting,” she said. “It’s totally out of their control.”

Adams said there is more the court can do to prepare for what she expects to be an onslaught of eviction filings.

“Suddenly renters will have March, April and May rents due and people are not going to be able to pay that money back in a lump sum,” she said. “So unless landlords are willing to set up a structured payment plan or unless judges are willing to use their discretion to force landlords to do that, we’re going to see a lot of families out on the street.”

Neither DeDecker nor Adams said that an extension on the moratorium, even through August, is an ideal solution. It only buys time. They both stressed that much more government assistance and support will be necessary to avoid mass evictions. 

“One benefit of keeping the courts closed is that it gives all of us more time to figure out the answers to that larger question,” DeDecker said. “We know there have been federal conversations around rental assistance programs. There have been conversations around rent cancellation at the national level and mortgage cancellations in the coming months where both the tenant and the landlord are covered.”

If those ideas don’t pan out, Adams predicted a bleak future.

“I think it will be a displacement crisis on scale with nothing we’ve seen in recent history.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...